The Great Communicator, he isn't. Photographer:  Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
The Great Communicator, he isn't. Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Last week, David B. Cohen, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, briefly became the most-cited American voice on contemporary Indian politics -- and the darling of the Indian-American diaspora -- when he published a piece in the major left-leaning Indian newpaper the Hindu comparing Narendra Modi, India’s likely prime-minister-in-waiting, to Ronald Reagan.

India's Aspirations

There’s some merit to the parallel, particularly because there exists no obvious precedent for a figure like Modi in Indian democratic politics. There are many similarities, Cohen insists, between the personalities and political reception of the two immensely charismatic leaders. Modi is constantly derided by the cultural elite for his apparent lack of sophistication and polish, as was Reagan; Modi shows a keenness to dismantle government paternalism and promote economic liberty instead, as Reagan did. For Reagan’s tough line on Russia, substitute Modi’s promised hard line on Pakistan. And Reagan’s opponents in the U.S. used to tar him as a “racist” in much the same way Modi’s opponents smear him as a “communalist” when what he stands for, in fact, is a refusal to accord minority groups special privileges.

Cohen’s daring comparison is, of course, meant to flatter Modi, though some, such as myself, would argue that most of it is meant to flatter Cohen. But let's see if there’s more to it than what even Cohen makes out of it, including the counterintuitive notion that the comparison actually flatters Reagan.

Indeed, Mr. Cohen, don’t compare your craggy, clean-cut hero, who exploited the dividends of his previous career as a matinee idol, with our bespectacled, bearlike colossus, who’s never thought of anything but the nation and good governance. Reagan may have radiated an infectious strength, poise and optimism, but Modi would be the first to point out (as he often does during his rallies in a strident, martial-rhetorical way) that he famously possesses a 56-inch chest, while the leader of the free world only had a 44-inch one despite “a lifetime of working out with wheels and bars.” And as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, in matters of the spirit, a foot makes a world of difference.

When it comes to being a worker bee, Modi comes out on top. While Reagan was a most popular president, he had no great head for policy, repeated a version of the same simple idea about free markets all his life, left the U.S.'s national debt much greater than when he come to office, and believed any old theory that came his way, most infamously in his much-ridiculed “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative in the final decade of the Cold War.

While Modi does not have upon his head the onerous responsibility of saving the world, and history, from the tentacles of the “evil empire,” he is much more interested in the nuts and bolts of policy. Cohen tries to slip in the idea that Modi is, like Reagan, “an unabashed proponent of free-market economics.” (He is nothing of the sort, though he is, broadly, more pro-business than the current regime.)

Even so, part of the excitement around the prospect of his becoming prime minister is the expectation that he has some big ideas to unfurl that don’t involve just social security and the spread of the welfare state, policies the outgoing coalition government chose to focus on. Many Indian liberals hope Modi will run a fiscally prudent government that will unlock India’s wasted potential and cash in on the demographic dividend, not just through economic reforms but by improving infrastructure and streamlining the chaos of the present Indian state. It way well come to pass, then, that while Modi is not unambiguously for free markets, Modinomics might in time actually trump Reaganomics.

The two men also contrast in interesting ways. In "Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home," his magnificent portrait of Reagan’s presidency, Garry Wills coined a wonderful phrase to describe Reagan’s hold over the American people: “original sinlessness,” or the blithe illusion, gratefully embraced by the people, that America was an exception among nations and that the American spirit stood for innocence, idealism and derring-do.

While Reagan was able to float upon this cloud, Modi, one might say, has always been dragged down by something like an “original sin”: his alleged complicity in the religious riots that took hundreds of lives on his watch early in 2002 and his refusal to ever admit responsibility, or acknowledge remorse, for what happened. As evidence of Modi’s innocence, Cohen points to an investigation conducted by a special team appointed by India’s Supreme Court, which could come up with no evidence directly implicating Modi. He should read the veteran journalist Manoj Mitta’s recent book on the startling gaps in this investigation before he makes up his mind for good. (For those who would say Mitta is partisan, his previous book was an investigation nailing the role of the Indian National Congress in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.) It seems likely this stain will never be wiped off Modi’s record, probably for good reasons.

And finally, we come to the theme that more than any other invalidates Cohen’s ambitious analogy. History may still be making its mind up about Reagan, but if there’s one word that’s most often associated with him, it is “freedom.” Reagan stood not just for the vision of economic freedom associated with conservative politics (there can be others, too), but also for American civilization’s belief in personal freedom (which can be a bit extreme, such as when it comes to gun ownership). If in the Reagan worldview there was an enemy, it lay outside America: the grand edifice of communism, which he worked systematically to discredit and dismantle.

Modi’s vision of freedom, however, is more competitive, and often laughably petty. Just ask the Gujarat editor of India’s biggest English-language paper, the Times of India, who found himself, along with a correspondent and a photographer, facing five charges of “sedition” in 2008 for a set of reports indicting the police commissioner of Ahmedabad (a man hand-picked by Modi) in an “encounter killing” in the state. The Gujarat High Court dismissed the charges only last year, and it was left to the judge to remind the government that the reports criticized a person, and could therefore in no way be seditious, because “the state cannot be identified with an individual.”

Such legal niceties and protocols don’t trouble Modi much, as was made clear again from Snoopgate, the controversy that broke last year when it was revealed that he had used the state’s surveillance apparatus to illegally track a young female architect for more than a month, apparently on the instructions of her own father. (That such a defense passes scrutiny in India says even more about the Indian view of parent-child relations than it does about Modi’s recklessness.) It’s hard to square this kind of invasive meddling with Reagan’s famous line “Government exists to protect us from each other.”

Modi’s approach to dealing with his critics is generally to see if they can be harassed in some way, often by swarming all over them with the law. Far more than any Indian prime minister previously, the candidate tilts toward the management of the news media through public relations and shies away from direct questioning by the media. Should he become prime minister, with a record like that on freedom, Indian citizens exercising their democratic right to dissent might require their own version of a Reaganesque Strategic Defense Initiative.

This one, though, would offer protection from the overeager attentions of their own prime minister.

To contact the writer of this article:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.